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Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life by Nassim Taleb

sandordargo profile image Sandor Dargo Originally published at sandordargo.com Updated on ・5 min read

I read once again a very interesting book by Nassim Taleb. I realized that I don't just like his books, but I sympathize with the author, with his style, with his sarcasm. More than that, I like that someone without social sciences background writes about philosophy, about life. He is a former options trader and risk analyst, a statistician with quite some experience in real life. I think about him as I think about stoics, about Ryan Holiday. For these people, philosophy is not something they think about in their ivory towers far away from people. No, for them, philosophy is a way to conduct their lives. To me, they are more credible.

What's in the game?

The first question I had when I picked up the book was what the title means?

I'm not a native English speaker - I guess you already realized this - and I didn't know this expression. I was curious. I didn't want to look it up in the dictionary, I wanted the author to lead me to understand it.

Skin in the game means that you have something to lose if you make wrong calls, if don't make the right decisions. Like losing your life. Your existence. Or maybe simply your career.

That's something many people don't have, especially in certain professions. Think about (non-founder) CEOs. What happens if they mess up and the company they manage busts? Most of them might take some pause, there is a fair chance they get a hefty severance package and they go to the next company. They don't have skin in the game.

That's also true for most of the football coaches who just swap places after they fail with their teams.

"Intellectuals Yet Idiots"

The lack of skin in the game applies even more to people in think tanks, in administrations. The author cites the example of "interventionistas" of the U.S. State Department who promoted the invasion of Iraq and the events leading to the Arab Spring. They brought war for tens of millions of people, they brought chaos where there were relative order and peace.

The plans they had maybe sounded good, maybe they believed they are doing the right thing, they might have had a cause. And definitely, most of these people think they are superior to the less educated-citizens.

Taleb refers to them as Intellectuals Yet Idiots.

Who are these people? They are

"no-skin-in-the-game policymaking “clerks” and journalists-insiders, that class of paternalistic semi-intellectual experts with some Ivy league, Oxford-Cambridge, or similar label-driven education who are telling the rest of us 1) what to do, 2) what to eat, 3) how to speak, 4) how to think... and 5) who to vote for."

These educated philistines consider the non-intellectuals idiots, while they can't recognize the difference between science and scientism. They are a product of the modern era, they have no skin in the game, but they think that they know what is your best interest, especially if you'd vote differently then them. They will call you uneducated, ignorant, you name it.

The biggest problem is that an Intellectual Yet Idiot gets the first-order logic right, but not the second or higher orders. As such, whenever complex thinking would be required they are incompetent, but they would never acknowledge it. After them, the Deluge.

And of course, they don't understand what is satirical.

The minority rule

For me, this was the most interesting idea of the book. According to the minority rule "a small segment of the population inflicts its preferences" on the general population.

That's how Christianity became the state religion of the Roman empire. When Christians were already tolerated, Romans wanted to trade gods with them as they already did with so many religions. They accepted the Christian God and they offered theirs in exchange. But Christians didn't accept the generous offer which was very strange to the Romans, but they tolerated it. As the Christian minority insisted on so many things that the others didn't care much about, the minority little by little enforced their rules to the majority.

Just to make it clear, I don't want to hurt anyone. This is not against Christians. This is not about Christians. Islam got traction the same way. But don't get me wrong, this is not about religions, it's about how a minority can expand its influence.

Think about those vegans vs those who just eat - almost - anything. For vegans, it's important what they eat, for the rest of the people, not so much. Or at least not the same way. That's why often - pre-Covid times - our teams ate vegan cakes. Because there is a vegan minority (~5-6%, well that means 2 people) not wanting to break their rules and the majority though might have a slight preference they do not want to hurt or exclude them, they don't want to go into conflicts, so they simply adapt to vegans' rules. Even if vegans don't expect so - like in our case. I also often prepared vegan cakes so that they also can eat, even though I'm an omnivore and I can more easily prepare a non-vegan muffin.

But there are people, there are minorities who really expect that their rules are adopted by the silent majority. It's not enough for them that the others don't consume alcohol. No. You shouldn't either. Even better if the whole city doesn't tolerate this evil habit, but a country-wide ban would be preferable.

They take their rules seriously. They think that if the majority doesn't adapt they have something to lose. Like their ideal - they have skin in the game.

Conclusion

In this book, Taleb explained what it means to have skin in the game. If you have something serious - even imaginary - to lose by making the wrong calls, my not working hard, by not following your mission, then you have.

He takes a long time in the book to speak about social groups who in general have no skin in the game. Like the IYIs, western politicians, CEOs, football coaches, etc.

There is a very important message. The risks we take in our life, they compound. The more risky habits we have, the higher the risk that we won't have a long life. We have to limit those risks. At the same time, we have to realize that some risks are worth taking and history is written by risk-takers. By people with skin in the game.

Who do you want to be?

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Discussion (2)

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raddevus profile image
raddevus

Great post and the book sounds very interesting. I will check it out.
I think this is related to Software Dev too because there are devs and higher level roles (software architects, etc) who may not have any skin in the game but may force things to be done a certain way.

There are other devs (usually higher level) who may even : produce the code to create a feature then walk away from it forcing others to support it when it breaks, make code fixes, etc. I call them Mic Drop Devs -- they be like "I finished it. I'm out!"
It is not helpful and only the real devs who fully "own" their code really have skin in the game. Only when you are the one who will be woke up in the middle of the night to fix it do you really have skin in the game.

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sandordargo profile image
Sandor Dargo Author

Thanks for your comment! That's an awesome analogy!

And that's actually the way our teams are taking these months. No more feature and maintenance teams, each team will be responsible for maintaining their own products. People will have some skin in the game!

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